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First Circuit Finds that Employee’s Request for Accommodation for Her Disability Was “Too Little, Too Late” to Avoid Termination

A recent First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling affirmed a federal court’s ruling that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect a disabled employee’s misconduct.

In Trahan v. Wayfair Maine, LLC, the plaintiff was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2010. She was hired as a service consultant in defendant’s Maine call center in August 2017. She did not disclose her PTSD diagnosis or that she suffered from acute PTSD episodes when she was hired. The defendant company’s General Rules of Conduct required that all employees act professionally and stated that offending employees could be discharged for unprofessional interactions with coworkers. While in training, the plaintiff and two coworkers were involved in an incident where the plaintiff called her coworkers inappropriate names, threw her headset, and slammed down her phone while at her workstation. The plaintiff met with her manager following the incident where she did not dispute the facts. She also requested to be moved to a different desk or team to minimize her interactions with the coworkers. The plaintiff did not report that she had PTSD or that the incident triggered a PTSD episode.

The defendant informed the plaintiff that she was suspended pending further investigation. Following being notified of her suspension, the plaintiff disclosed in a voicemail to defendant’s HR manager that she suffered from PTSD and the incident triggered an episode. During a subsequent conversation with the HR manager, the plaintiff reiterated her request to move away from her coworkers and mentioned possibly working from home. The employee was discharged shortly thereafter.

The plaintiff brought suit against defendant, claiming that she was wrongfully discharged based on her PTSD and that defendant failed to accommodate her disability. In allowing defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the Court found that there was no evidence that defendant acted with an intent to discriminate on the basis of her disability. The undisputed facts - calling coworkers names, throwing equipment, and slamming down a phone - clearly violated defendant’s rules of conduct and warranted the plaintiff’s termination. The Court also found defendant fired other employees for outbursts in the workplace.

The Court also did not find any evidence that the defendant failed to make a reasonable accommodation. The request for a reasonable accommodation only occurred after it was clear to the plaintiff that an adverse employment was forthcoming. According to the Court, an accommodation request following fireable misconduct should not be viewed as an accommodation proposal at all. The ADA does not require an employer to give an employee, even with a disability, a second chance for violating its rules of conduct. Additionally, the Court did not believe that the plaintiff’s accommodation requests would prevent further misconduct.

The case highlights the balance between workplace protections for disabled employees and the right of employers to discharge employees for violations of clearly established conduct rules. It also highlights the importance of employers documenting performance issues, conducting swift and thorough investigations into workplace misconduct, and consistently applying their rules of conduct, even in difficult situations. Had the defendant not done so here, the outcome of this case may have been different.